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Photo Gallery: 'Only Life Counts'

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'Shoah' Director Claude Lanzmann 'Death Has Always Been a Scandal'

In a SPIEGEL interview, French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, director of the Holocaust documentary "Shoah," discusses his new memoir and his life's work studying the Nazi genocide of the Jews.

SPIEGEL: Monsieur Lanzmann, the overriding theme of your extraordinary life is death. You begin your memoirs with thoughts on the death penalty and end it with your masterpiece, the monumental documentary film "Shoah." Where does this obsession come from?

Lanzmann: That's a good question, because it's a central question for me. And yet it also contains a paradox. My book is a hymn to life to a certain extent, a hymn that rises above the horizon of the experience of death. For me, death has always been a scandal. The sense of horror I experienced as a child after watching a film with an execution scene involving the guillotine has remained with me for my entire life.

SPIEGEL: The fear of a violent death, a prospect you sometimes faced during the war?

Lanzmann: Every death is violent. There is no natural death, unlike the picture we like to paint of the father who dies quietly in his sleep, surrounded by his loved ones. I don't believe in that.

SPIEGEL: Is that why the arrogance of imposing death as a penalty is the most extreme form of sacrilege?

Lanzmann: How can one impose death as a penalty? This is a philosophical conundrum. It's certainly quite odd that I begin my book with a long chapter about the death penalty. French television made a film about me last year, and when I was asked to propose a title, I chose: "There is Only Life."

SPIEGEL: You include a similar quote in your book, taken from an Auschwitz prisoner.

Lanzmann: It was from Salmen Lewenthal, a member of the Jewish work commando that had to dispose of the bones of those who were murdered and incinerated. He and fellow prisoner Salmen Gradowski secretly wrote a sort of chronicle of horror. They buried the pages near the crematoriums, where they were found after the war, half-decayed and partially illegible. This Lewenthal gave the best answer to the obscene question of why they, as Jews, were willing to do their horrible work, even though they, too, were doomed. "The truth is that one wants to live at any cost, one wants to live because one lives ... because the whole world lives." This is the sanctification of life in the kingdom of death.

SPIEGEL: And yet you asked yourself the question of how you would have decided, if you had had the choice between life and death.

Lanzmann: Yes, the question of courage and cowardice is a recurrent theme in my life. I was often in situations in which I behaved in a completely cowardly way, as I was forced to realize afterwards. That's because I prefer life to death. And yet I have done dangerous things in which I put my life at risk.

SPIEGEL: As a member of the Résistance during the German occupation of France, you once barely escaped arrest by the Gestapo.

Lanzmann: What would I have done if I had been tortured? Would I have talked? Jean-Paul Sartre has addressed this question at length. Everyone talks if he is really tortured. The real heroes are those who put a bullet in their heads to avoid the risk of talking.

SPIEGEL: Would you have been such a hero?

Lanzmann: I don't know. But I do know that the Gestapo knew how to get people to talk. I saw with my own eyes how the Germans arrested members of the Résistance at the train station in Clermont-Ferrand. The poor guys were ashen-faced. They knew what was in store for them. I didn't fully consider the dilemma at the time, which is one of the things for which I blame myself. I didn't reach the inner certainty that I would be able to sacrifice my life, if need be, so as not to betray someone else.

SPIEGEL: Did you kill anyone?

Lanzmann: Yes, I was involved in several ambushes, as a machine-gunner and as a gun loader. Once, in the summer of 1944, we ambushed a German convoy on its way to the front in Normandy. I shot, and I certainly killed Germans.

SPIEGEL: Did you have any scruples?

Lanzmann: Why should I have had scruples? I was waging war, war against a common enemy. In that situation, you have to be willing to give death, to kill those who have come to kill.

SPIEGEL: How did you feel in those moments?

Lanzmann: The man next to me in that ambush, a quiet man who was significantly older than me, was suddenly transformed, almost out of his mind, when we opened fire. He shouted: "There, you scum, you rascal, that's for Papa!" His father had died in World War I. He was filled with hatred in that moment, as he took revenge for his father. I wasn't inspired by such feelings. But for me, as a Jew, the Résistance was the best way to protect myself. It meant that you weren't helpless, that you had a chance.

SPIEGEL: Is a just war always a war in self-defense?

Lanzmann: Yes, I am deeply convinced of that.

SPIEGEL: You joined the Communists in the Résistance -- because they were the most well organized group or out of ideological conviction?

Lanzmann: I wasn't particularly close to the Communists politically. My family leaned toward the left, as I do today, but I hadn't read Marx, Engels, Lenin or Stalin. An acquaintance involved in the communist youth movement suggested I join. It could just as easily have been another movement. And things didn't go so well with the Communists. Once they wanted to kill us, claiming that we were deserters.

SPIEGEL: And yet you write that you wept when you heard the news of Stalin's death in 1953.

Lanzmann: Not out of sympathy for the dictator. I didn't care about Stalin. I was deeply moved by the way the Soviet marines lowered their flags in mourning. To me, this gesture symbolized the heroic courage of the Russian people, who had made horrible sacrifices and bore the greatest burden of the war against the Nazis.

SPIEGEL: Were you ever afraid for your life?

Lanzmann: Sometimes, but not in the concrete moment of battle, even though that was when I was in the greatest danger. Fighting the Germans wasn't child's play. They were outstanding soldiers, extremely careful and disciplined.

SPIEGEL: You weren't afraid of being deported, of being loaded onto a train to the East?

Lanzmann: I witnessed roundups of Jews, but we had only a vague idea of what would happen to the deportees. My father was much more pessimistic than I was, by the way. It was more of an apprehension. We sensed that something horrible must have been happening somewhere far away in the east. But it was unimaginable to make the mental leap from there to the systematic extermination of the Jews. There was no precedent for it. Even at the entrance to the gas chambers, the Jews still clung to a last bit of hope, which I demonstrated in my film "Shoah." One cannot know what one cannot imagine. The gas chambers were the culmination of a series of lies and acts of violence. When Jan Karski, the courier of the Polish government-in-exile, was in Washington in 1943 to report on the things he had seen in Warsaw ghetto and the Izbica camp, the American Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, himself a Jew, said to him: "Young man, I don't believe you. I'm not saying that you're a liar, but I don't believe you." The justice thought that he knew what people were like.

SPIEGEL: People knew you were a Jew when you were in school. Did they take it out on you?

Lanzmann: Strangely enough, never. We were three Jews in a small class, but I didn't hear a single derogatory remark. I was registered under my real name, even though my father had obtained forged papers, without the notorious red Jewish stamp. This silence was a form of solidarity.

SPIEGEL: Still, the Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain was openly anti-Semitic.

Lanzmann: France had two faces, that of collaboration and that of the Résistance. Of the 76,000 Jews deported from France, only 2,500 survived. But two-thirds of the Jews in France were not deported. They were rescued thanks to support within the French population. My false papers identified me as Claude Bassier, born in a small town in the Auvergne. French government officials participated in the effort. They didn't expect payment, but were simply helping their community, for reasons of humanity.

Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

SPIEGEL: Your mother survived a Gestapo interrogation. But she wasn't tortured.

Lanzmann: She had a face with a very Jewish nose. She also stuttered. Like all children, I was a conformist, and I was ashamed of her. Somehow I sensed that there was danger. But she was, in fact, an attractive woman, I believe.

SPIEGEL: You went to Germany shortly after the war, first as a student in Tübingen and later as a lecturer at the Free University in Berlin. Didn't you have any qualms?

Lanzmann: No, surprisingly not. My friend Michel Tournier, who would later write "The Erl-King," convinced me to come to Tübingen. I studied philosophy and wrote a paper on Leibniz. Despite everything, I still believed that Germany was the home of philosophy.

SPIEGEL: Nazism didn't manage to poison that tradition?

Lanzmann: Not in my view. I still like to go to Berlin, a fascinating city, though something of a mystery, and visit the small cemetery where Hegel and Fichte are buried. It always moves me.

SPIEGEL: How did the Germans treat you, a French Jew?

Lanzmann: I felt neither mistrust nor defensiveness. That happened later, when I was looking for perpetrators for "Shoah," witnesses I wanted to interview. My seminar on anti-Semitism, which I gave at the request of students in Berlin, was full. We read Sartre's "Reflections on the Jewish Question," until the French military governor forbade the event, on the grounds that it was about politics. The male students were all older than me. They had returned from the war or from prisoner-of-war camps. The girls were my age, and I liked them a lot. Some returned my affection, which proves what nonsense racism is.

SPIEGEL: Germany continues to cope with its past to this day. What is your assessment of the incessant culture of remembrance?

Lanzmann: I feel that the Germans have handled it in an exemplary manner. It mustn't stop. The murder of the Jews was an event of such import that it will never fall under the mantle of oblivion. It is an event that transcends all time. The remarkable thing is that the Germans are only now beginning to talk about their own suffering. The crimes against the Jews long prevented them from doing so. But today they have the right to commemorate that side of the story, too.

SPIEGEL: How do you like the Holocaust memorial in Berlin?

Lanzmann: It's a fantastic monument, a wonderful idea. You get lost among the steles, and you lose all sense of direction. Still, I would have preferred it if they had left a barren space in the middle of Berlin, in the heart of the Nazi system. A blank spot of remembrance, in a sense.

SPIEGEL: In writing your memoirs, you also performed an impressive personal feat of memory, without notes and archives. Is your memory that reliable?

Lanzmann: Yes, more or less. I never wrote diaries. When I'm not quite sure about something, I say so. With a book like this, I also wanted to show what memory is. "The Patagonian Hare" is written in the present tense, a living memory, the past made present. Do you also have this impression when you read the German text?

SPIEGEL: Absolutely. It's a gripping life story with a surprisingly cheerful underlying tone.

Lanzmann: It's important to me that you say that. We should drink to that.

SPIEGEL: Monsieur Lanzmann, the great encounter of your life, soon after the war, was your friendship with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. You were still very young. What are your most dominant memories of Sartre? The thinker, the combative intellectual, the fallible prophet?

Lanzmann: The person, most of all. I loved his face. I never thought Sartre was ugly. And I loved his voice, a nice, metallic voice, and his unbelievable generosity. Sartre lived like a saint. He was very giving.

SPIEGEL: And he refused to accept the Nobel Prize.

Lanzmann: He had the most beautiful way of thinking I've ever experienced. His intelligence was so formidable that he could share it with everyone. You emerged from a conversation with him feeling enriched. I'm very sorry that he never saw my films. He went blind in old age.

SPIEGEL: He was also a great seducer.

Lanzmann: His fame and his effect on young people after 1945 were incomparable. He embodied a different France. He constructed, entirely for himself, an alternative French legitimacy, next to de Gaulle. There wasn't a single liberation movement in the world, in Latin America or elsewhere, that didn't seek his recognition. And he helped where he could, even with his own money.

SPIEGEL: But he was also a caustic polemicist who was known for his merciless attacks and sometimes for being very wrong. Didn't he seem like a person possessed to you?

Lanzmann: He was a happy person, certainly not a desperate one, even if he sometimes felt an existential fear of death. Perhaps he owed that to Heidegger's influence. Yes, he did work like a person possessed, writing for seven or eight hours a day, relentlessly working against himself. But he also took amphetamines to stay awake, like the Allied bomber pilots on their long night flights to Germany and back. He swallowed large quantities of corydrane, not just one tablet, but sometimes an entire handful, which he chewed. It was bitter stuff. "I allow the sun to go up in my head," he would say by way of explanation. When the effects wore off, his chin would become rigid and paralyzed, and he succumbed to depression. He drank in the evenings. He knew how dangerous it was, that he was burning the candle at both ends.

SPIEGEL: How did the partnership between Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir work? Was it a love story, intellectual symbiosis or just a friendship?

Lanzmann: A bit of everything. It began with a love affair, which turned into a unique friendship. They lived and worked separately, but they met almost every afternoon. He read what he had written out loud to her, and she was his most perceptive critic.

SPIEGEL: Wasn't there any jealousy between the two?

Lanzmann: Sometimes, when one of them would enter into an intense relationship, one would be overcome by the fear of losing the other.

SPIEGEL: You yourself had an intense love affair with Simone de Beauvoir, who was 17 years your senior. You were her "sixth husband."

Lanzmann: That's what she said to me after we had slept together the first time. I lived with her for eight years as if we were married. She was no longer having sex with Sartre.

SPIEGEL: Who were the other men in her life?

Lanzmann: Aside from Sartre, of course, the journalist Jacques-Laurent Bost, the writer Arthur Koestler, the philosophy professor and later Director-General of UNESCO René Maheu, and the American author Nelson Algren.

SPIEGEL: Sartre's first work that fascinated you was "Reflections on the Jewish Question," which he wrote at the end of the war. To what extent did you encounter your own experiences in the essay?

Lanzmann: It was an act of liberation for me and many Jews of my generation, after years of fear and hiding shamefully. The greatest French writer drafted a fascinating portrait of the anti-Semite in his essay. After all the years of living with anti-Semitism, it allowed me to regain the ability to return the smiles of the French.

SPIEGEL: And yet you sensed that Sartre had succumbed to a fundamental error?

Lanzmann: That was somewhat later, in 1952, when I traveled to Israel for the first time. Sartre claimed it was only the anti-Semite who created the Jews. In Israel I discovered, and it came as a shock to me, that a Jewish people existed, with a long history, a tradition, an unbending will and a greatness of its own. The Jew does exist without the anti-Semite, sui generis, in his own right. Sartre accepted it after that.

'There Is No Why Here'

SPIEGEL: You never thought of moving to Israel?

Lanzmann: David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel, who I saw several times in those years, said to me: "We need people like you. Come live in our country." But I had just met Simone de Beauvoir, and we had slept together on the evening before my departure. She wrote to me and asked me to come back. My ties with France and the language were too strong. I don't speak Hebrew and I'm not religious. One of my most amazing experiences in Israel was a Sabbath in the small city of Afula. Suddenly everything came to a standstill. There were no buses and no cars, and I couldn't even get back to Tel Aviv. I was stranded in this remote town in the desert, with nobody on the streets. Where were all the Jews?

SPIEGEL: Did you support Israel with your films?

Lanzmann: "Shoah" is a universal work that addresses the entire world. But I got my first ideas for the film from Israeli government agencies. I don't believe that Israel is the outcome of the Shoah, the deliverance from it. But the connection is indisputable.

SPIEGEL: Could you have shot "Shoah" if you had been a concentration camp survivor yourself?

Lanzmann: Probably not. This work required distance. Respect and wonder grow with distance.

SPIEGEL: Why did you dispense with historic images completely in your film? "Shoah" consists exclusively of the accounts of contemporary witnesses, victims and perpetrators.

Lanzmann: There are no images of people dying in the gas chambers. I was interested in the visualization of what had happened, the incarnation, the shaping of memory.

SPIEGEL: By exterminating the Jews, the Nazis also wanted to exterminate their memory.

Lanzmann: And remove all traces. I wanted to resurrect the dead. The accounts, the tears, the emotions of the witnesses are more authentic than historic documents -- a past that is experienced and relived. The historians who specialize in the subject never liked my film.

SPIEGEL: Probably because you dispense with historic explanations altogether.

Lanzmann: I claim that there are none. Not wanting to understand was always my iron rule. When posed the question, "why?" by Primo Levi, then a prisoner, an SS officer answered: "There is no why here." This is the truth. The search for why is absolutely obscene.

SPIEGEL: There are indeed historically documented reasons for that homicidal anti-Semitism.

Lanzmann: Of course, the historians assemble their chain of causation -- the world economic crisis, unemployment, the defeat in World War I, Bolshevism, Hitler's experiences as a young man, and so on. The explanations end with the extermination of the Jews as almost a harmonious, rational, logical outcome. That's precisely the obscene thing. It may be that certain conditions are necessary for the rise of homicidal anti-Semitism, but they are not sufficient. The ruthlessness of death in the gas chamber remains incomprehensible. Presenting this bewilderment is the goal of my film.

SPIEGEL: Does that also explain your provocatively paradoxical statement that no one was really in Auschwitz?

Lanzmann: That sentence infuriated the survivors. Auschwitz was both an extermination camp and a labor camp. The Jews condemned to death were taken to the gas chamber immediately after being selected at the ramp. They didn't even know that they were dying in Auschwitz. There was no consciousness, just sheer horror. The others, who stood a chance of surviving, didn't see the gas chamber at the moment of death. The site of the horror is unreal, which is what the perpetrators wanted. I was deeply disturbed the first time I saw the sign for the town of Treblinka in Poland. I couldn't imagine that such a place really existed.

SPIEGEL: Is that why you concentrated on the Jewish witnesses of the last stage, before the act of extermination?

Lanzmann: I wanted to get as close as possible to death. No personal accounts are told in "Shoah," no anecdotes. It's only about death. The film is not about the survivors.

SPIEGEL: The perpetrators stood at the other end of the chain of extermination. You describe how difficult it was to get them to talk. You misled them, gave them money and filmed them with a hidden camera. Didn't you have any qualms about this?

Lanzmann: What qualms should I have had about misleading Nazis, murderers? Weren't the Nazis themselves masters of deception? Didn't the perpetrators lead fraudulent lives after the war? My film is supposed to be a tomb to the murdered, which they never received in reality.

SPIEGEL: You can look back at an exciting and sometimes dangerous life. You write that an Israel military doctor who examined you before you were allowed to fly as a passenger in a fighter jet told you it was possible that you could live to 120. Doesn't death frighten you, now that you are in your old age?

Lanzmann: I am ageless. I think about death constantly, including my own death. At the same time, it all remains completely unreal. As I said, only life counts.

SPIEGEL: Monsieur Lanzmann, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Romain Leick and Martin Doerry. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
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